Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Weather Is Probably Not An Exciting Blog Topic

It's been quite a while since I posted, and I now have a ridiculous backlog again (as opposed to the relatively manageable backlog I had before this most recent vacation and trip). I'm really not very good at this. On a travel level, my parents were in France for a short visit earlier this month, so that story to come, and after that I went to Denmark to visit a good friend who's spending the year in Copenhagen, so that story also to come. On a personal level, my free time continues to be mostly taken up with an increasingly stressful job search, not to mention my assorted existential crises, and it is increasingly looking like I'm going to be either going home or moving someplace random and taking a menial job for a while. (Not that some people wouldn't argue that being an archaeological field tech is something of a menial job itself.) There's even a part of me that's okay with that, especially since I'm not really in the market for something permanent right now, and doing something that won't consume my life would maybe give me some time to write, since I haven't done as much of that as I expected this year. But I'm still applying for other stuff, and I'm reluctantly reevaluating my claim that I don't want to live in France anymore, because this makes it seem like France might well be the easiest place in western Europe for me to get permission live at the moment. I'm also considering volunteering to teach at one of several interesting schools in Central America for a while. I'm ALMOST done (finally) with my TESOL certification course; I have to write an essay for the last unit (blergh) and then I'm free. I guess that probably would have been a good way to spend the last few days of the holiday, but, well, Pottermore finally opened up to the public while I was away...

Anyway, here's what's to come: Not counting today, I have three days left at my job, which is crazy (and means that a lot of my unfinished posts on my observations about school-related things are going to be up after the fact). On the one hand, I'm kind of ready to move on to something else, but on the other hand, I can't believe how fast seven months have gone. The day after my contract ends, I'm flying to Marseilles with some friends and we've rented a house in the coastal town of Cassis for the week. That means I have just a week to get a lot of stuff done, including buying souvenirs, shipping some books home, finding out how to deal with closing my bank account, cleaning my room, and finding some way to pack all of my things and get them out of here. Should be interesting. After Cassis, I'm heading back to Paris, from where I'm flying to Dakar with another friend to visit our friend in the Peace Corps in northeastern Senegal. I'm super excited about that! Then once we get back, I have just a week left in France before my flight back to the U.S. I haven't decided yet how I'm going to spend it. I know all of this is going to go by so fast.

The last couple of days we've had some pretty classic Brittany weather. That means it changes at least every ten minutes, and going through three or four seasons in the span of half a day is par for the course. This experience pretty much sums it up: I got up today and it was what I'd call partly sunny and cold. I walked to the supermarket between classes this morning and when I walked outside again, there was a perfect rainbow hanging over the street I was about to walk down. By the time I reached the corner, not a minute later, it was pissing rain, as the Brits say, and that good old Brest wind (which last night attempted to physically prevent us from walking home from downtown) was driving it all right into my face. By the time I reached the steps down to the school, which probably takes all of five minutes, the rain had backed off to barely a drizzle and the sun was peeking out again. 

I've actually kind of grown to love the atmospheric mood swings, howling wind and all, thought I certainly prefer it when it's not cold. My favorite weather is probably light rain that falls while the sun is shining, and I've seen that more in my seven months in Brittany than ever before in my life.

There's a saying here that "En Bretagne, il ne pleut que sur les cons," which can basically be translated as "In Brittany, it only rains on idiots."* It basically means if you hate it enough to complain, go somewhere else.

It hasn't quite sunk in yet that I AM going somewhere else very soon. I don't know if I will miss Brest, exactly, but I will miss Brittany. I talked to some students yesterday about stereotypes; what they had to say about les Bretons made me preemptively nostalgic (and all of us hungry!). 

My other random thought for the day is my favorite thing about market day. Is it the delicious food? The beautiful produce? The cheap clothes? The stacks of used books? The concentration of adorable dogs? 

Nope. It's the sight of cute toddlers shuffling along gnawing on baguettes as tall as themselves. Never gets old, that.

* Or "on assholes", if you prefer a more hostile interpretation

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Language Teachers (Language "Teachers"? "Language" Teachers?)

A few weeks ago, on a single Friday afternoon, I had not one, but two rather unsettling experiences.

I'll tell the second story first, because it's less involved. I was asked the question (this is verbatim), "How do you call the person who learns you how to driving?"*

What was so unsettling about this? The question was asked by a teacher. An English teacher.

I may or may not have mentioned before that language teachers seem to vary widely in terms of their competency in the language they are supposed to teach. And I certainly don't mean to imply that this is an issue restricted to France; I'm sure there are similar situations in many places, but this is the only one I can attest to from firsthand experience. What I know is that working with seven teachers gives me an interesting window on just how varied the language skills of foreign language teachers can be. There are those with heavy French accents and lots of mispronunciation, and those with strange accents that aren't really French but certainly aren't neutral, and those with almost-perfect British accents. There are those who speak very clearly and precisely, trying to make a point of getting things right even if they mispronounce some words or use some odd grammatical constructs, and there are those who toss off their sentences quickly and casually whether they're right or wrong. There are those who are hesitant when they run into something they're not sure how to say when talking to me, and those who just make something up.

There are those who are essentially fluent--and those whose level is hardly above that of some of their students.

It's depressing sometimes, especially because the teachers for whom this is true aren't necessarily bad teachers in other respects. Indeed, this particular woman is probably an excellent teacher in terms of actual teaching skills. I've seen her managing students, I've seen her lesson materials, I know from my own experience that she is incredibly kind and patient. When I work with her classes, she and I often collaborate on lesson plans that tie in to what she's been teaching, which is a win for everyone--she's still off the hook for an hour or two a week, but I'm also getting input and feedback from an experienced teacher and her students are getting the benefit of more organization and consistency than those of teachers who give me free rein and little info. I like her a lot, and I respect her a lot, and I cringe a little bit every time I think about the fact that she probably speaks French to me (even in front of the students, which hardly any teachers usually do) as much because her English is bad as because I'm supposed to be learning French.

It also just mystifies me a bit. What does one have to do to become a foreign-language teacher? Surely there are language-specific qualifications. Surely there's an exam of some sort, and surely it involves speaking. How does one convince the powers that be to let him or her teach something he or she isn't even very good at? Again, I'm sure this doesn't only happen in France, but I still don't understand it. The idea that anyone would allow me, at my current level, to teach French is almost laughable to me. I've thought about it, and I don't think I would allow myself to teach French at this stage. If nothing else, I'm horrified by the prospect of passing on my terrible pronunciation. And yet if this woman makes her living as an English teacher, then it would appear that I might, by someone's standards, be qualified to teach at least beginning French. Even though there are still days when I can barely string a sentence together.


* Throw in a thick French accent and poor pronunciation skills and I actually mistakenly heard "drawing" the first time and answered, "an art teacher," leading to further confusion.

Planning Things, Visa Woes Revisited, and How I Still Can't Decide What To Do With My Life

Sorry to keep boring you with blog statistics, but "Things That Suck
About Brest" is getting way more hits than the less dismal Brest post
that came after it. That's kind of depressing, folks.

Here where the difference in length of day between summer and winter
is so much more dramatic than I'm used to, I am really amazed at how
quickly the changes seem to happen. I remember seeing the winter
darkness set in while I was in Ireland; this year I didn't notice
quite as much, I guess because I was more prepared for it. But now
that spring is here, it's hard to believe that less than two months
ago I was going to work in the dark in the morning and coming home in
the dark in the evening. One morning not long ago, I woke up at 6:40
and the sky was orange, and now when the school day finishes at 5:20,
it's still as bright as mid-afternoon. We set the clocks ahead two
weekends ago (so now it's not sunrise quite so early as it was last
week, but we'll get there), and now it's still a little light out at 9
pm. I lose track of time late in the day because it doesn't seem
possible for it to be as late as it is. It's like I blinked at some
point and suddenly we had three or four extra hours of daylight!

Of course, I'm still amazed at how quickly time is moving in general.
March went by just as fast as February, and I'm now in my second to
last week of teaching. As of last week, I have lived in France for six
months. It's not that much more than five months, really--and it
certainly doesn't feel like it--but it seems like a huge milestone.

Even as I've been revelling in the long days and the beautiful weather
we've been having, I've been going crazy over here trying to plan my
parents' visit. They're arriving at the end of this week! They've
never been to France before, and we only have six days, one of which I
won't even be with them because they're arriving the morning of my
last day of work before the holiday. My goal has been to maximize the
number of things we can do and see while minimizing the time we spend
traveling and the number of times we have to move our luggage. It is
not an easy feat, and it's complicated further by the fact that my dad
is super busy and my mom doesn't use the internet (or computers at
all, for that matter), so A) they hadn't done a whole lot of research
themselves about what they wanted to do, and B) it's hard to all be on
the same page at the same time. By two weeks ago, I felt like we were
down to the wire and was starting to get pretty stressed out about the
lack of concrete decisions that had been made. I realize I'm not
exactly the poster child for advance travel arrangements, but I'm
usually making arrangements for things I'm already relatively close
to. This is a big trip for them and I want to make sure it, well,

By a week ago, we'd figured out what we're doing and when, but were by
then two weeks away from needing a hotel room in Paris. During
everyone's spring break, French and American and probably other places
too. Right. So that was tons of fun trying to pin down... but it's all
done now, finally.

And as for planning ahead, I have also (finally) sorted out a way to
get back to the U.S. Speaking of logistical nightmares. I really don't
even want to get into why this is complicated, because it totally
shouldn't be. The point is, it took me days and lots of stress to
achieve, had me in tears on at least one occasion, and is still not
entirely satisfying in the end. But it's done.

Which means... I'm returning to the U.S. near the end of May. It's not
a decision I made lightly, and I'm still not sure I'm not making a

My current plan is find a job in my [original] field (archaeology) for
the summer. If it's a seasonal job, then I'm not sure yet what I'm
going to do after August--look for another job teaching abroad, do
something in education in the U.S., keep looking for archaeology work.
Too many choices. All I know is I'm still not ready for grad school
(somehow, a lot fewer questions got answered this year than I was
hoping), and anything I do right now is temporary because in the fall
I'm going to be re-applying to TAPIF for the 2013-2014 school year.

My reasoning for waiting a year to do my second stint is that if I
apply to renew my current contract, I theoretically would have to stay
in Bretagne, if not in the city of Brest. And as much as I love
Brittany, I want to experience other places. My dream (at the moment)
is to reapply to TAPIF and be accepted to teach in a DOM (département
d'outre mer/overseas department--places that are part of France but
aren't in France proper). Most of them are tropical, many are islands.
I'm actually most interested in going to Guyane (French Guiana). For
those of you who are geographically challenged, it's on the northeast
coast of South America, sort of in between Brazil and Venezuela, on
the edge of the Amazon rainforest.

I've noticed that my motivation to work on my TESOL course dropped off
sharply right around the time I started seriously looking for jobs
back in the U.S., which is somewhat unfortunate. I had originally
thought to be finished before now. My new goal, once I realized I
hadn't submitted a lesson in a month, was to finish before the April
holiday. I'm not sure that's going to happen either. I've reached the
final unit, but it requires me to write an essay, and I don't think I
have time for that this week. Sigh.

Finishing it will, at least in theory, open the door to a lot of other
opportunities overseas. However, 90% of them, as far as I can tell,
are in East and Central Asia (you'd be amazed how much demand there is
for English teachers in Mongolia) or the Middle East, which are the
parts of the world in which I'm least interested in living. (I don't
have any particular reason for that, it just is what it is.) I have
seen a few tempting possibilities in Latin America, but I'm not sure I
feel ready. I want to learn some more Spanish first. And as for
Western and Central Europe, France is probably my best bet, but I'm
just not that interested in staying. (Again, no particular reason I
can articulate.*) Unfortunately, it's likely to be next to impossible
to get a job anywhere else, because the EU is set up in such a way
that EU citizens are supposed to always have priority in hiring. And
obviously there are enough native English speakers in the EU that few
schools and companies are willing to go through the rigmarole involved
in hiring someone who needs a visa.

Speaking of which... what I really wanted to do was go back to
Ireland. I mean really go back. Not on a trip, not to visit, but to
live. I miss it. I did not realize how much I missed it until I was
here, but once I was here it took me about a month to decide that what
I wanted to do next was spend the next year working somewhere in

Obviously, the ability to teach ESL is not going to get me very far
there. Unfortunately, I don't really have any other highly marketable
skills, either. And like most places in western Europe, Irish
immigration policy poses a catch-22: You can't get a work permit
without a job offer, but no one is likely to offer you a job unless
you already have the right to work there. Especially when the economy
sucks and there aren't even enough jobs to go around for Irish

My best bet appears to be to do my Master's in Ireland, after which
graduates have a period of time in which they're allowed to stay in
the country to look for work.

But that would require me to be able to afford to do a Master's in
Ireland, which is both very expensive for international students and
unlikely to come with any kind of funding for international students.

So at that point, I might as well just aim for the ultimate fantasy,
which is to become independently wealthy and apply for residency under
the elusive "self-sufficiency" category. That's basically my plan
right now: publish novels, become highly successful, amass whatever
mysterious minimum sum is necessary to convince the government I won't
become a sponge, and then go back.

Unless I meet some lovely Irish citizen living abroad and wind up
getting married, which I guess might actually be easier.

I'm being pretty light about all this right now, but a couple of
months ago when I was really realizing that my odds of actually
finding and landing a job in Ireland anytime soon are slim to none, I
was devastated.

When I had to write an essay--nearly a year and a half ago now--about
why I was applying to TAPIF, I rambled on and on about the importance
of language education and how earnestly I believed that learning a
second language and learning it well could really open up the world to
a person.

Bull. Language barriers can be overcome as needed. EU citizenship
opens doors. If my British and Irish friends want to stay in France,
they can stay. There's no overstaying their visa, no making sure their
next employer will help them get a new one. If they want to move to a
different country in Europe, they can, same deal. No questions asked.
No extra bureaucratic formalities. No threat of getting deported or
blacklisted because of paperwork gone awry.

I realize it goes both ways. It would be just as hard for them to move
to the U.S. as it is for me to move to Europe. But all that really
means is it's equal-opportunity suckage.**

All of you out there with dual American/European nationality? Screw
you. I hope you realize just how lucky you are, and just how much
possibility is at your fingertips. And I hope you take advantage of
it. My ex-boyfriend told me when we were in high school that he could
potentially claim Swiss citizenship via his grandmother***; I don't
know whether he ever followed through on that, but I'm tempted to get
in touch with him for the sole purpose of telling him he's a fool if
he didn't.

In any case, the bottom line is that I now know way more than I will
probably ever need to about Irish immigration policy. I'm going back
to America at the end of May, and hopefully getting back into
archaeology for the time being, and we'll just have to see where
things go from there.

But first, my parents are coming to France, and I'm going to Denmark
(this month) and Senegal (next month)! Bring on the travel adventures.

* Although the fact that I don't want to have to write a French CV
might be a contributing factor.
** On the other hand, there are lots and lots of countries to choose
from in the EU. The U.S. is arguably just as varied as if it were
several different countries, but it's not actually.
*** Ireland also has a so-called grandfather clause, which basically
says you're eligible for citizenship if at least one of your
grandparents was a citizen, even if you personally have never lived in
Ireland before. I don't know if that's quite how the Swiss one works,
and I don't know how common such things are. It's moot for me anyway,
because I am many generations removed from anywhere in Europe on every
branch of the family tree I can reliably trace.